Out of sub­ur­bia: A teen out­cast’s jour­ney to top of com­edy world

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOKS - RE­VIEWED BY MIKE SACKS Mike Sacks is on the ed­i­to­rial staff of Van­ity Fair mag­a­zine and is the author of three books, in­clud­ing a forth­com­ing col­lec­tion of hu­mor pieces, “Your Wildest Dreams, Within Rea­son.” book­world@wash­post.com

Pat­ton Oswalt, a Ster­ling-raised co­me­dian who toiled for years in Washington area com­edy clubs, is one of those rare per­form­ers whose ma­te­rial trans­lates to any medium with­out los­ing its sharp­ness — in­clud­ing, for the first time, print. Part mem­oir, part graphic novel, part col­lec­tion of hu­mor es­says, his “Zom­bie Space­ship Waste­land” is a lit­tle un­gainly but ex­tremely lik­able.

The book will be valu­able to any­one who wants to know how to get from here to there. Sim­ply: how to go from be­ing a broke, car­less teenage movie usher in the Town cen­ter strip mall in the 1980s, just an out­cast “stuck in the syrup of the sub­urbs” and sur­rounded by “paint huf­fers and skate rats,” to be­com­ing one of the most re­spected comics work­ing. Oswalt has ap­peared in more than 25 movies (in­clud­ing play­ing the lead in 2009’s won­der­ful “Big Fan”), re­leased nu­mer­ous al­bums and toured with a ver­i­ta­ble who’s who of to­day’s top comedic tal­ent, in­clud­ing Zach Gal­i­fi­anakis, David Cross and Todd Barry.

So, how did he do it? It helps to start out, as Oswalt did, as a “dopey faced” kid ob­sessed with sci­ence fic­tion and postapoc­a­lyp­tic fan­tasy board games that al­low a player to cre­ate highly imag­i­na­tive, per­sonal world­views and char­ac­ters. Oswalt breaks it down into even fur­ther geeked-out minu­tiae. In his opin­ion, the av­er­age teen out­cast falls into one of three highly spe­cific cat­e­gories: those who pre­fer zom­bie sto­ries (and feel a “dis­gust with the slick and false”), those who en­joy space­ship sto­ries (and are con­tent with “ their in­su­lar, slightly muted lives” be­cause their “de­flec­tor shields [are] up”), or those who, like him, tend to grav­i­tate to sto­ries that take place af­ter the apoc­a­lypse (and are “con­fused but fas­ci­nated” by the bland­ness of the world).

For Oswalt, this bland­ness be­gins to evap­o­rate with a lit­tle help from Monty Python, Richard Pryor and Ge­orge Car­lin — and with the ar­rival of an even more ex­cit­ing, pos­si­bly treach­er­ous, ob­ses­sion: “I went to a pool party — the first one I was skinny enough to swim at with­out my shirt. I made out with a girl, and the curve of her hip and the soft jut of shoul­der blades in a bikini for­ever trumped the imag­ined sen­sa­tion of a sword pom­mel or spell book.”

While Oswalt might have writ­ten more about the skills he used to wend his way through the bleak land­scape to­ward suc­cess, it is well worth it to join him on his odyssey. That the hero of this tale is a for­merly over­weight nerd who hails from sub­ur­ban Vir­ginia makes it only more grat­i­fy­ing — es­pe­cially for those out­casts dream­ing that, one day, they too will be able to bridge the gap be­tween here and there.

JOHN JAY CABUAY FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

ZOM­BIE SPACE­SHIP WASTE­LAND

By Pat­ton Oswalt Scrib­ner. 191 pp. $24

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